Caitlyn Jenner: A Lesson in Being Yourself

imageOf all of the insecurities I have about myself, my gender has never been one of them. If I’m being honest, it is something that I never even considered – I was born as the person I was meant to be. I am a woman and I am comfortable with that.

The Internet exploded yesterday with Caitlyn Jenner’s “Call me Caitlyn” Vanity Fair photo shoot. While I’m not a fan of anything Kardashian, I’ve been following Caitlyn’s story for quite a while. Recently, like millions of others, I was moved by her honest and frank interview with Diane Sawyer. Why? Because, while I am comfortable in my own skin, I have witnessed a similar journey first-hand.

As a teacher, I’ve worked with thousands of students over the years, but there are a few that will always have a special place in my memories. One in particular will always stand out as being one of the bravest I have have ever known.

At a previous school I used to teach lots of drama, despite music being my first subject. In one of my Year 7 classes (11 year-olds to anyone outside of the UK), there was a little girl. Shy, awkward and quiet, she found it difficult to connect with others and as the year progressed she withdrew more and more into herself. She started to frequently argue with others, got into fights and developed a hatred for the school. At the end of the year, she told me she was leaving to go to another school, stating that she couldn’t be herself and would feel more accepted somewhere else.

Nearly a year later, I went for an interview and as part of the process, I was required to teach a short lesson to a class whilst being observed by the Principal and Head of Faculty. When I walked into the classroom, I heard a squeak from the corner of the room. It was the same student who had left the year before, and she proceeded to repeatedly tell everyone how ‘awesome’ I was, to the point where the Principal had to ask her to be quiet. If I could have hugged her, I would have done – I got the job and I have always felt that her reaction played a small part in obtaining it. Gone was the awkward, shy character I had known – she had made friends, had become involved in music activities and appeared to be much more confident in herself.

Unfortunately, I soon realised after starting my new job that she wasn’t. She was clearly depressed and struggling. She hated any activities that involved her being ‘seen’ in any sort of way, and she refused to have her picture taken or be filmed during music events.

Eventually, she came out as being gay when she was about 13 years old. It wasn’t unexpected, although perhaps unusual for someone so young to be open about their sexuality, but her friends and the majority of the school community accepted it immediately. I was pleased for her, and hoped that her disclosure would make her feel a little more secure with herself. However, she appeared to continue to spiral downwards.

Everything became a little more clear the following year.

She wasn’t gay, she was transgender.

He was physically a female, but identified as being a male, trapped in a female body. He wasn’t looking for attention or to cause trouble – he was simply tired of his daily internal struggle and had made the decision to tell everyone who he really was.

While I’m not going to go into the personal details, I can tell you that it was a long and difficult journey for him. Thankfully, he was extremely lucky to have the support of those closest to him – his friends, both male and female, took the time to ask questions, listened, and once those questions were answered they carried on exactly as they had before, except referring to him as a ‘he’ and calling him by the masculine name that he identified with. I was proud of them. I am proud of him, and I have every faith that he will continue on his journey and live a productive, happy and confident life as the person he was meant to be.

Millions of others aren’t as lucky.

Despite huge strides being made in the understanding and acceptance of the LGBT community in recent years (although there is still a long way to go), being transgender is still widely misunderstood and many still confuse gender with sexuality, and even worse, believe that it is a form of mental disorder. The stigma surrounding being trans means that many struggle with accepting themselves and finding a place in their community. According to surveys conducted by the Williams Institute, 41% of trans or gender non-conforming people surveyed had attempted suicide, more than 25 times the rate of the general population.

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It took Caitlyn Jenner 65 years to finally become who she is, and her decision to transition in a very public forum has received a hugely positive reception. Yesterday, she broke the record for the fastest number of followers on Twitter, gaining a million in just four hours on her new account. It has started conversations and explained misconceptions, highlighting the issues and taboos surrounding the trans community.

Above all, it has become an inspiring story of acceptance, and proof that living life as your true self is truly a life worth fighting for.

My biggest congratulations to you Caitlyn, and to all those who have had the courage to stand up and be who they were born to be.

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Photo credits: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair